Where are you from?
I was born in Oklahoma City, grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, and have lived all of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. All of these places feel like home, in different ways.
Who are your favorite writers?
I always find this question difficult to answer, partly because I'm afraid my choices sound so random, and also because there are many writers whose work I love, and different ones come to mind at different times. That said, some of my favorite fiction writers are John Cheever, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Spencer, Marilynne Robinson, and Richard Ford. Some favorite nonfiction books are Meditations from a Movable Chair by Andre Dubus, Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner, Something to Declare by Julia Alvarez, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, and the memoirs of Frank McCourt. I love the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne and Anne Sexton. And I think everything by my husband, Ron Hansen, is pretty wonderful.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
My three favorite novels are Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I admire the emotional territory that each of those books covers, and I admire those first person narrators. I'm also often drawn to books about childhood. The novel that first made me want to write a novel myself was The Sterile Cuckoo by John Nichols. When I read it twenty or so years ago, I was working on short stories, many of them about adolescence. Maybe that's why that particular book made me want to try my hand at writing a novel. I had the feeling that I probably wouldn't be able to write as good a book as that, but maybe it was worth a shot.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
No hobbies per se. I love going to the movies and I'm the ideal audience: I'm easily sucked in and I completely forget where I am and what day it is. I love that kind of immersion. I also love the beach, and I usually go once a week, sometimes alone, sometimes with the dog, sometimes with my mom. It's a little less than an hour's drive and the whole experience is very restorative for me. The drive over is beautiful and I feel rested and calm and grateful when I get back. I'm also careful to give time to self-care. In the fall of 2004 I was diagnosed with breast cancer (stage one—we caught it early) and the experience taught me a great deal about the importance of taking care of myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. This involves simple but important things such as resting when I'm tired, getting a massage when my back hurts, staying active, eating reasonably well (emphasis on "reasonably"—I really like Starbucks and I don't try to be perfect), and listening to myself.
If my life sounds simple—as in uncomplicated—it is, by design. I'm wary of spreading myself too thin, and I know about how much I can handle before I begin to feel overwhelmed. My priorities are my spiritual life and wellbeing, relationships with family and friends, and my work, and when I keep this perspective I'm happy and calm and productive, and my life feels full.
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
My dad (who passed away in 2000) said that every day he did three things: he took care of the responsibilities for that day, he did something for someone else, and he had some fun. That's about the best formula for a balanced and well-rounded life—and for contentment—that I know. My mom also gave me great advice about marriage. She and my dad were married for fifty-six years, and when I asked her what the secret to a good marriage was, she said, "Trust and freedom. And two TVs."
I've also been given good writing advice. About thirty years ago while giving a reading at Stanford, Grace Paley was asked for her advice to young writers. "Keep your overhead low." I've found it to be great advice, not only in terms of money, but in the larger sense; to me it also refers to keeping your life simple.
There's a second piece that I think of and use often. My husband read it in a book on New Testament Greek. It is, "Do little often." This to me is a great piece of writing advice; it's easy to get overwhelmed by the blank page (or screen), but you only have to do a little at a time. And doing little often is a great way to steadily pile up pages. I use this advice for other tasks as well: taxes, sorting out closets, anything that seems like too much when I think of the whole task, but doable in small pieces. For someone who tends toward an all-or-nothing approach to just about anything, the idea of "do little often" is wonderful—freeing and constructive.
What is your favorite quote?
I have two favorite writing quotes. The first is from the Catholic writer Henry Nouwen: "Writing is like giving away the loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving." I like that because I receive a gift in the act of writing, and so I hope that I'm passing something of it on in the process. My other favorite writing quote is from E.L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." This gets at that idea of doing little often; I can get overwhelmed by the task at hand, and concentrating on what I can see—what the headlights illuminate—encourages me.
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Because much of my first novel takes place in Shanghai, I'm most often asked whether I've been to China. I confess: I haven't. When I started writing the book, I thought I would do my homework first and deal with whether I needed to make the trip later. But as I researched the Shanghai of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the richness and abundance of the material made me think that I didn't need to make the trip. More importantly, I came to see that while a trip to Shanghai would allow me to see some of the older parts of the city, most of what I was writing about no longer existed. The city had changed so dramatically that I felt that seeing the modern city would actually make the task of writing about old Shanghai more difficult. And so I stayed home and read, and built the city in my mind.
Where do you write?
In January of 2009, I bought my first laptop—a MacBook, which I love—and now I can write anywhere. When I'm in the middle of something and wanting to use every spare minute, I work in waiting rooms, libraries, airports, and on planes. But as slothful as it may sound, I work most often in bed on the laptop because it's comfortable and quiet, and because when I'm working on something difficult I can pretend I'm not really doing anything, just fooling around, which helps me write my way through hard or intimidating sections.